Priorities in Cunningham

Ms BIRD(Cunningham) (18:43): I start in my contribution to this cognate debate on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2016-2017 and the Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2016-2017 by commending my colleague the member for Macarthur. The issue of housing affordability is a very significant one, and it is no different in my electorate. The Wollongong area has seen a significant increase in the cost of housing and, flowing from that, the cost of rental accommodation. That has put great pressure on young people in particular trying to get into reliable permanent housing. Very sadly, many young people in my area are now expressing to me the view that they will never own their own home. I think that is a very sad state of affairs. The member is right: we have not seen any real action or determination by this government to address this matter. Simply buck-passing it off to this states as state issues is not sufficient. Simply buck-passing it off to parents saying, 'You should dip into your life savings to help you kids onto the housing ladder,' does not reflect the reality that many parents are not in a position to do that. So the member's contribution, I think, was very important to this debate.

Today I want to touch on a number of issues in my electorate that require urgent attention by this government. They are things that are relevant and related to the issues that the member for Macarthur was outlining. I want to talk first of all about the very important issue of community legal centres as we approach the next budget. On 14 March, I and the member for Whitlam visited the Illawarra Legal Centre. While we were there we put out a public call for the government to reverse their very cruel cuts to legal centres, including our own in the Illawarra. From 1 July the Illawarra Legal Centre will be forced to turn away about 500 Illawarra locals, thanks to the government's devastating cuts to community legal centres through the national partnership agreement.

Community legal centres, as many of my colleagues in this place on all sides would know, are critical for thousands of people around Australia who desperately need free legal assistance but do not qualify for legal aid. They are, indeed, on the front line of the battle against domestic violence and they assist people with diverse problems, such as Centrelink—we certainly had a lot to do with the robo-debt disaster at the beginning of the year—tenancy disputes and employment issues. In my area, the South Coast Labour Council has worked to highlight the extraordinary and disgraceful level of exploitation of young workers. I know that the legal centre is closely involved in working to protect young people in those positions. They and their dedicated staff have been providing free legal advice and assistance to people in the Illawarra for 30 years. They have helped around 5,000 people every year.

In 2016-17, the federal government contributed 65 per cent of Illawarra Legal Centre funding from the national partnership agreement and the rest came from the New South Wales government. However, 85 per cent of the centre's cases are related to federal issues. So they were already funding less than the caseload that the Illawarra Legal Centre was dealing with. Now, on top of that, the legal centre faces a 21 per cent cut in their funding, thanks to this government. This will seriously jeopardise their ability to help vulnerable locals. It is a cut of $166,000, as well as the loss of the corresponding administration and support that goes with it. It is the only free legal service in the entire Illawarra. It provides a one-stop shop for assistance in a variety of areas, as I have indicated. Many of their clients require assistance across multiple areas, often finding themselves with a range of difficulties when they get into financial trouble. Many require assistance in an urgent capacity. They have nowhere else to go and they turn to the legal centre. These cuts will have a very serious weakening effect on the ability of their programs to deliver for very vulnerable people in my area. As I said, as we approach the budget, I call on the federal government—I call on Malcolm Turnbull and the relevant minister—to reinstate funding for these community legal centres because they do such critically important work. Again, we do not need to see the most vulnerable in our society being the ones who are paying the price when the government is prioritising big tax cuts to big business, big banks and wealthy individuals. They are the wrong priorities and we should make sure these community legal centres do not suffer as a result and the people they help miss out on that assistance.

The second issue I want to talk about in this debate as we look at appropriation and budget bills is the very important area of supporting pensioners in our community. On Tuesday, 7 March, the member for Whitlam and I had a forum which was attended by over 200 pensioners from across the Illawarra and Southern Highlands. We were joined by the shadow minister for families and social services, Jenny Macklin. We wanted to give people the opportunity to tell us what their current situation was and to express their views on changes that are proposed to the age pension, and they were certainly more than willing to do that. Their message was loud and clear: they are very fed up with proposals by the Turnbull government to cut funding and support for older Australians.

Almost 4,000 pensioners across the Whitlam and Cunningham electorates have seen an average cut to their pension of $130 a fortnight. When you are living on such a small amount of money, every dollar counts, and this has had a huge impact. Indeed, one lady broke down in tears as she was telling us about some of the effects it has had on her ability to manage. A further 1,500 local pensioners have lost their pension entirely. This leaves them, on average, worse off by around $180 a fortnight. The legislation to change the pension assets test and cut the age pension passed the parliament in June 2015. This was the result, I have to say, of a very unhappy backroom deal between the Liberal Party and the Greens. In the last session of parliament, Liberal Party members voted to scrap the energy supplement for pensioners, and if the government gets its way the energy supplement will be scrapped for new pensioners from September this year. That will mean a cut of $14.10 per fortnight to single pensioners, which is $365 a year. That could be a repair for a car; it could be a new whitegoods item, if, say, a washing machine breaks down. At that amount of money, I tell you what—they are already shopping at second-hand stores. So that makes a big difference to their annual income. Couple pensioners will be $21.20 a fortnight worse off, which is around $550 a year.

This government's track record for age pensioners is nothing short of atrocious. We all well remember the promise before the 2013 election that there would be no cuts to pensions, but we have seen exactly the opposite. It is funny how this government trumpets that it cannot reverse its commitments made at the election, except for ones like this. It is a really appalling priority and it shows just how out of touch the government is with real people. I thank all those pensioners who came along and shared their experiences and stories with us and I am very pleased to give them a commitment that I, along with the Labor Party, will continue to campaign to protect their income because we understand how tough they are doing it.

The other issue I want to touch on today is also about very vulnerable people in my community. I had a meeting today with representatives of the Australian Services Union. They are at the front line of really important work with the most vulnerable in our community. I want to start this part of my contribution by paying great respect to community sector workers. They are not very well paid, they work in very difficult circumstances, they work with very vulnerable people and their contribution to our national effort is invaluable. We should all recognise how significantly important they are because of the work that they do and the vulnerable people that they directly work with. But we should also understand that those vulnerable people have families, and those families often would not be able to get by without the support of these community sector workers, and that would pull them out of the workforce and out of community service and activities that they are involved in, and we would all be the poorer for that. I want to start by paying my respect to the work done by community service workers in this country.

I want to finish my contribution by talking about a couple of issues that the Australian Services Union representatives and workers wanted to talk to me about which I think are really important. They are in desperate need of serious attention from this government and a commitment to ensure that they are viable into the future. The first issue they raised was around mental health services. Not only did I meet with the Australian Services Union people today, but last week in this parliament I met with a delegation from Mental Health Australia, and they raised very similar issues with me. They are very concerned that programs, such as the Personal Helpers and Mentors and the Partners in Recovery programs, are potentially under great threat because of the way they are being managed by this government.

It is really important to understand that the vast majority of the work of these programs involves dealing with people who may have periodic episodes of mental health problems or may have lower-level mental health problems. That early intervention and support ensure that they are able to manage and, hopefully, get themselves back on the road to recovery from that mental health episode. Sometimes it is about working with people with mental health issues to provide them with ongoing support, a safe place and a safe person to deal with to get them through the tough times. That enables them to be more fully functioning members of a family and members of our community. It really is important work.

I want to recognise that there are many of these organisations in my own area, particularly working in the Partners in Recovery program, that are doing great work. I am very concerned that the government has not addressed the concerns of such organisations and has not delivered a national plan that gives priority to mental health to ensure that these sorts of programs are not under threat. We have seen funding cuts; we have seen a government dragging its heels around dealing with a mental health plan. All of these sorts of decisions are taking a toll on our communities, and the fact that I had one group from Mental Health Australia and another group from the workers in that field visit me during these two weeks of parliament indicates how critically important it is. The government really must give attention to those issues.

The other area that these groups particularly wanted to talk to me about was, obviously, disability services, in particular making sure that we recognise the importance and the work of the workers in the disability field. These people are just amazing—they are so caring and they go above and beyond—but they are not very well paid, and there are some real concerns about the future workforce in the disability sector. Of course, as the National Disability Insurance Scheme rolls out there will be increasing demand for workers in this field. That should be a good thing. That should be an opportunity, particularly in areas like mine, where unemployment rates and particularly youth unemployment rates persist higher than state and national averages, to create a real job and career opportunity for people to enter that sector. But you cannot do that if you are driving the workforce at a pace and with a remuneration that so undervalues the work that they do. How are you going to attract people into a sector when they see that that is the reality?

It is also impossible if you are not actually committing to workforce planning and workforce training. This is not unskilled work. This is very, very skilled work, and it is the sort of work that people need to be supported and trained in to do effectively and safely. We need the government to pay attention to this and to get on with addressing these issues.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.